WHEN casting a curious eye over John Montague’s latest collection of poetry, Speech Lessons, one suspects that Montague is a poet who has lived a colourful life, never quite settling in one particular landscape.
His poems tend to venture back to the various places he has lived, the characters he has made acquaintances with, often pondering upon the complications of family lineage.
Montague was born in Brooklyn in 1929, and spent the first four years of his life in what he calls “an Irish Ghetto” in Bushwick Avenue. At four years of age, he was shipped back to live with his aunts on a farm in Garvaghey, Co Tyrone, as his father struggled to make a living in the depression-torn years in the United States.
Now living in the south of France, Montague says the decision to be moved back to Ireland had a profound affect on him.
One needs only to scan Speech Lessons to count the number of times the word Brooklyn appears in various poems: “Me, a Brooklyn urchin, troubling his lair”, “For Lo, I had suffered the long exodus from Brooklyn and New York”, “I had seen my last day in Brooklyn”, “Except I was born in depression Brooklyn”, “To this little Brooklyn boy”.
Montague says it seems only natural that he should long for another life he could have easily lived, and adds that “one should always have a dream self.”
Through the epic poem, In My Grandfather’s Mansion, Montague tries to understand his own Grandfather, a man he never got to know.
“There is a famous phrase of Auden’s, which is: poetry is breaking bread with the dead. So with that poem, I conjured up my Grandfather using the objects he left behind. He had quite an extensive library and he was fascinated by the Bible. Of course old style Catholics were not supposed to read The Old Testament in those days. He was the Justice of Peace, and he was the first Catholic to have that kind of job in Tyrone where he lived, so he must have been a very striking man. Growing up with my aunts in Co Tyrone they never mentioned him. It was hard for my father to live up to his father’s reputation.”
Montague’s own relationship with his father was complicated. The opening lines of the poem, Cage, from the collection, The Rough Field, describe this very poignantly.
“My father, the least happy man I have known His face retained the pallor of those who work underground: the lost years in Brooklyn.”
Despite the long absence, Montague did manage to have a relationship with his father many years later.
“He returned to Ireland in 1952, so that was 18 years in between I didn’t see him, so I was inclined afterwards to be kind to him I think. One time when I was working away at my typewriter, in those later years, he came into the room to me, and he said, ‘I frittered away all my chances, John. All my chances’”.
Although Montague speaks French, it was as a young man, in the late 1940s, that he discovered the fruits of French culture, aptly described in Vendange:
Each evening the long, lit Rheims Express passing through on her way to Paris Listening to the carriages swaying clatterI did not know they were ferrying my own future towards and away from me.”
“When I went to France at that time it was quite daring, because it wasn’t too long after that war, the country was severally bombed and was very poor. That trip wasn’t just about going into France; it was also the experience of going into the aftermath of the war. We came down as far as the south of France on our bicycles and spent six weeks there with very little money.”
As a poet who has lived in many countries, Montague has mixed with some of the most charismatic and talented writers of the 20th Century. In the poem, Leap, he recalls how he cried upon hearing about the tragic suicide of the American poet, John Berryman, who jumped from a bridge in Mississippi in 1972.
Montague met Berryman while he was attending a writing workshop in Iowa in the 1950s. Berryman — who battled with alcoholism until the end of his life — used drink as a muse for his poetry says Montague.
“He was the first poet I’d seen who was able to compose on drink. I found that fascinating, he used drink, whisky especially, in order to get through to his unconscious. He could write when he was liquored up, and when he was sober he would sort them out. He was highly trained as an academic, so I think he had a problem of getting through the academic barrier, so he used drink to make himself almost insane.”
Montague also became good friends with Samuel Beckett when they became Montparnasse neighbours in Paris in the early 1960s.
“He was a good neighbour. I wasn’t all that fascinated by his work because I’m not a playwright, and he wasn’t really a novelist, in the old sense, but we enjoyed each others company. We usually met to have a drink where we would discuss many things, he told me what to read, and we laughed a lot. With Sam, you had to remember that he seemed extremely shy and difficult at the start, but after the third drink he kind of woke up.”
In the poem Silences, whom he dedicates to his partner, the novelist, Elizabeth Wassell, Montague says of his art: “Poetry is a weapon, a prayer before an unknown alter.”
What about the Auden line, which says, poetry makes nothing happen, I ask?
“I think Auden was having us on. I think he really believed that anyone that could hear his message would be changed by it. Poetry opens up a hinge into the unconscious, and to the unconscious of other people with whom you are connected. I guess you can call that a form of prayer if you like.”